Imagine if Harry Potter started using his invisibility cloak to become a master thief, or if Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up to run a brothel. That’s the sort of blasphemy that devotees of To Kill A Mockingbird are accusing 89-year-old Harper Lee of committing by releasing a new novel, Go Set A Watchman, that depicts Mockingbird’s hero lawyer Atticus Finch as a crusty, unapologetic racist.
Until today, however, no one except reviewers had read the entire book. And, in what amounts to a mass “trigger alert” for readers who might be disturbed by having to reconsider their adoration for Atticus, the early reviews dutifully report that, ahem, there is some stuff in the new book that people who love To Kill A Mockingbird are not going to like. Warning: Your beloved Atticus Finch is revealed to be a racist, bigot, segregationist, and occasional attender of KKK meetings!
Words like “bombshell” and “scandal” have been tossed around to describe the impact of these revelations about Atticus’s “true” character. So far, the money quotes from Atticus are, “Do you want negroes by the carload in our churches, schools, and theater?” and, “The Negros down here are still in their childhood as a people.” As one reviewer put it, reading Go Set A Watchman is “like discovering an alternative version of The Catcher in the Rye in which JD Salinger casts the story of the adolescent Holden Caulfield as the dream of a pedophile Republican senator.”
Literary scandals don’t come along every day, so it’s worth taking a moment to examine why this one has so swiftly captured the nation’s imagination.
Or maybe not. Because the whole thing is kind of ridiculous.
Many people seem to need a gentle reminder that Atticus Finch is a fictional character. He is no more real than Santa Claus or Batman. And it is the nature of fictional characters that they exist as much in the reader’s imagination as they do on the page or the screen. One of the miracles of To Kill A Mockingbird was that the 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck, conformed so accurately to how people imagined the book. Or was it the other way around? No matter. For all intents and purposes, Atticus Finch is Gregory Peck, and Peck’s portrayal of Finch as a starchy patriarch whose moral compass is pointed in exactly the right direction is what people want to believe. Fictional though he is, Atticus Finch is one of America’s true heroes, a collective projection of what we think a “good” person should be. America has enough fallen heroes, though, so the thought of one more icon crumbling into the dust of disillusionment is more than some readers can bear.
But whose fault is that? Certainly not Harper Lee’s. Writers are not responsible for how readers react to their work. And writers are absolutely not responsible for failing to write the books people wish they would write. That’s why fan fiction was invented.
The fact is, the “Atticus Finch” in Go Set a Watchman may or may not be the same character as the Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman is allegedly the first book Harper Lee wrote and submitted. At the suggestion of her editor, she set it aside and used the book’s childhood flashbacks to frame and structure To Kill A Mockingbird. In so doing, Lee may have simply reinvented Atticus Finch to give Mockingbird a strong moral center; or, she may have reconciled his apparent hypocrisy as a nascent character flaw that would gradually emerge as he got older and no longer felt the need to hide his prejudices from the world.
It can, and will, be read either way. If we give Harper Lee the full credit of the doubt—that is, credit her with knowing exactly what she was doing—it might also be worth remembering that To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of a six-year-old girl who idolizes her father. Through Scout’s eyes, her father is, of course, a hero. At that age, she would be incapable of understanding that lawyers must sometimes represent people they don’t like, and manufacture arguments using lines of reasoning with which they don’t personally agree. That’s their job.
In Go Set a Watchman, a 26-year-old Scout (who now goes by Jean Louise) returns home to discover that, lo and behold, her father is not the man she thought he was. Disillusionment with one’s parents, followed by acceptance of their faults, is part of the process of growing up. That’s what Jean Louise is doing—growing up, coming to grips with the realities and complexities of real life. Nothing has changed, really, except that readers are now seeing Scout’s world through the eyes of an educated adult, not the eyes of an adoring daughter. Consequently, the moral center of the new (old) book is no longer Atticus, it is Jean Louise. And that is as it should be—if Lee was in fact trying to depict the way things actually happen in real life, not the way people wish they happened in the golden meadows of ReaderLand.
By releasing Go Set a Watchman after 55 years—and witnessing firsthand how little progress has been made in the areas of racism and prejudice over the years—that may be what Lee wants her readers to do as well: grow up.
Let’s face it, To Kill A Mockingbird appeals to children because of its moral clarity. Good and evil, right and wrong, tolerance and prejudice—all the battle lines are clearly drawn. The reader knows exactly who to root for. The novel’s sense of outrage and injustice feels good and right to the adolescent mind, because it takes place in a comforting (also preachy and didactic) moral universe. The issues it addresses may be complex and troublesome, and the outcome surprising, but how the reader ought to think about it all is never in doubt.
Now, it is. But only if your convictions are so malleable that the mere suggestion of a character flaw in Atticus Finch rocks your world, or if you don’t realize that it’s entirely up to you what you think of the fictional construction known as Atticus Finch. Again, he’s not a person, so he can’t be snared with a collective “gotcha” for his apparent contradictions and shortcomings as a human being. He can’t be impeached. He can’t resign. He can’t be fired. He’s a figment of our collective imagination, a cultural projection of the “perfect man” who does not exist. So maybe we should cut him a little slack.
At the very least, the publication of Go Set a Watchman will spark all kinds of interesting conversations about the nature of fiction, and many uninteresting conversations about Atticus Finch. For Twin Citians, these conversations will take on an added dimension when The Guthrie Theater presents the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, yet another interpretation of Harper Lee’s classic novel, albeit one that is sure to appeal to lovers of the movie and book.
I’m just glad I’m not in high school right now. Instead of reading one book, now students have to read two books and see a play—all to figure out one basic truth: that in many ways, America has more in common with the new Atticus Finch than the old one.